The Treaty of Mangalore ends Mr Carthew’s bitter imprisonment – March 1784
In December 1781 the Hannibal 50, Captain Alexander Christie, having arrived at St. Helena to convey home the trade, was summarily ordered to the East Indies on the orders of Commodore George Johnstone to reinforce Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes fleet. On the following 21 January, and being within five days sail of Madras, she was captured by the French East Indian fleet following a three-day chase.
At first the crew of the Hannibal were dispersed amongst the French men-of-war, in which predicament they were present at the Battles of Sadras and Providien, in so much that they were confined below decks in darkness throughout the engagements and were left without water for twenty-four hours thereafter. Notwithstanding this somewhat unavoidable usage, the French treatment of the prisoners was otherwise shabby to say the least, with the men barely subsisting on the meagre rations of rice and water allowed hem. It was even claimed that after two midshipmen wrote to the captain of the ship on which they were detained to the effect that they were being roasted by the proximity of their confinement to the galley stoves, the response was that they would be all the better to eat.
In the absence of Captain Christie the Hannibal’s late first lieutenant, the 24 year-old William Carthew, wrote to the French commander-in-chief, Commodore Pierre André de Suffren, complaining at the treatment of his shipmates, to which the Frenchman responded on 29 June by advocating that those men who chose to work could have more rations, but that the remainder would have to make do. Contrarily, he added that he had no wish to see the Hannibal’s men suffer, for in the previous war he had unhappily witnessed at first hand the treatment of three hundred French seamen in a prison hulk at New York who had been decimated by disease. Suffren then stated that the real fault for the men’s adversity lay with Hughes, the East India Company commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Eyre Coote, and the governor of Madras, Lord George Macartney, for not agreeing to an exchange of prisoners.
Eventually, after nearly six months of confinement at sea, the five hundred or so officers and men of the Hannibal were landed at Cuddalore to join numerous other British prisoners from the East India Company, the army or the merchant marine. Yet here, after an initially relaxed imprisonment on parole, and instead of being dispatched to the French Indian Ocean islands as was his government’s standing instruction, Suffren barbarously handed the men over to the Indian renegade Hyder Ali, whose intentions, he fully knew, were anything but honourable. It was later alleged that Suffren accepted a bribe of three hundred thousand rupees for the transfer of the prisoners, and that the French governor and the army officers in Cuddalore, despite their outrage, could do nothing to prevent the transaction.
The prisoners were quickly placed in irons, and under constant threat of punishment were force marched to a famine-ridden fort at Chidambaram where a number quickly succumbed to the appalling conditions and insufficient diet. From here a group of officers including Carthew’s brother Thomas, the Hannibal’s marine lieutenant, wrote to Suffren complaining of their situation, advising that they were a body of about sixty men who were confined in a thatched hut that provided barely any shelter from rain or sun, on a diet consisting solely of rice and water, and without access to medical care. With little expectation they asked that a surgeon be sent to attend the sick men, and that they themselves be allowed to return to the French fort at Cuddalore on parole. To this respectful missive Suffren replied on 19 July that he was sorry that the men had not been treated in accordance with the assurances Hyder Ali had given him, but reiterated that the fault lay with Hughes, Coote and Macartney for not agreeing to the prisoner exchange policy.
Dreadful though the prisoner’s conditions were, they were nothing compared to those they would endure a couple of months later. When twenty men led by an officer not belonging to the Hannibal were recaptured after a desperate escape attempt, Hyder Ali’s men took a brutal revenge. The officer was flogged with tamarind twigs and had sugar rubbed into the wounds, whilst all the men were placed in irons and removed to an even more hideous incarceration. Another couple of months went by, whereupon Hyder Ali ordered that the survivors be marched to Bangalore. Each man was placed in hand-irons and coupled to a partner, in the case of William Carthew this being his brother Thomas, the lieutenant of the marines. Fortunately, the merciless guards detaining the officers never became aware of this fraternal relationship, otherwise the ill-treatment may have been worse for both. The long march to Bangalore took the best part of three weeks, during which time the men were deprived of food, denied rest, and belaboured with musket-butts. Then once they were ensconced in their new prison the diet was so deficient that even more men died.
Upon arrival at Bangalore the party of prisoners had been split into three, and being one of the older and more valuable prisoners Carthew was spared the ordeal that awaited the boys in the party, including some of the Hannibal’s midshipmen. These boys, about fifty in number, were marched to Seringapatam where they were circumcised in the Muslim fashion, scalded in hogsheads of water to remove the ‘impurities’ caused by eating pork, and formed in a company to serve Hyder Ali’s cause. If this was not bad enough, when Hyder died in December 1782 his son and successor, Tippoo Sahib, forced the boys to join his slave battalions, resulting in even greater brutal treatment, the shaving of heads, and the boring of their ears with the branding of a slave’s mark in each.
Carthew and the other officers remained in captivity until March 1784 when the Treaty of Mangalore was signed between the East India Company and Tippoo. Sadly, whilst most of the prisoners were released Tippoo retained the survivors amongst the fifty-odd boys whose whereabouts and possible survival were by now unknown to their British comrades. As to the fate of the remainder of the Hannibal’s crew this is now unknown, although it has to be presumed that many would have died, and that others may have entered Hyder Ali’s forces under coercion.
Upon returning to England Carthew and his brother were greeted by an astonished family who had long given them up for dead. Legend has it that when the brothers were later visiting Paris, they identified Suffren in a box and were only prevented from assaulting him with some difficulty. In 1794 William was posted captain and he eventually became a superannuated admiral whilst his brother Thomas reputedly took a different course by becoming a clergyman.